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Her Honor

Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.

  •  Help Wanted: Qualified Leaders

    Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011

     

    Protests and politics in Wisconsin have increased the sharp focus on government salaries and benefits, creating a rippling effect in other states. Ohio and Illinois are engaged in similar debates, and California Assemblyman Allan Mansoor has introduced legislation seeking to change the collective bargaining process in the Golden State. For months, newspaper headlines and editorials have expressed sharp criticism of the public sector, leaving the impression that there are a “bunch of crooks” and “greedy” employees running government.
     
    While I am concerned about the inability of public agencies to balance budgets while facing  monumental unfunded benefits, I am also concerned about the impact of the hand-wringing and harsh criticism on the future of public sector jobs. Not only are good people choosing to retire from public office, there is a significant turnover among professionals, according to the International City/and County Management Association (ICMA).
     
    The phenomenon, sometimes called the “retirement tidal wave” has prompted Next Generation Initiatives, an ICMA project designed to “attract and develop a wide and diverse group of people into the local government management profession, including students, early and mid-career professionals, and individuals from other fields.”
     
    In my work with undergraduate political science students I emphasize the many challenges and rewards of public service, and remind them that elective office is not the only way to engage in meaningful change.
     
    Let’s hope the current crisis inspires a new generation of problem solvers.
     

     

  •  What Should Be Done When A City Is Bankrupt?

    Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

     

    The prospect of cities declaring bankruptcy has governors and legislators looking for solutions to rescue insolvent municipalities. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, the answer was to demote the mayor to an advisor, and put a state-appointed receiver in charge of the city. The state now has authority for unlimited oversight.
    Last July Mayor Charles D. Moreau was forced to turn in his city car, cell phone, and keys to city hall. His salary went from $71,736 to $26,000, although he has yet to be called for advice. His problems did not begin with the bankruptcy, however. Moreau  is currently under investigation on state and federal corruption charges, but has refused calls for his resignation, insisting he is planning his 2013 re-election campagn.
     A retired state judge is serving as receiver, trying to get the city financially on track. Cedar Falls was the first city in the state to declare insolvency, leaving both a deficit and unfunded retiree benefits. The action caused the city’s debt to plummet to junk bond status, and raised alarm in the town of 19,000.
    Cedar Falls is one of thousands of small towns that might be a good candidate for consolidation. While pooling resources and sharing revenues is not always an easy transition, it seems to make sense in a city of only 1.29 square miles.

     

  •  Importance Of Civility Endures

    Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

     

    When George Washington composed his Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, he advised, “every act done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those who are present.”
     
    On this, his birthday, it is appropriate to fast forward to 2011 and another set of principles put forward by the United States Conference of Mayors.
     
    At the recent annual meeting, 150 mayors from across the country signed a Civility Accord proposed by Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup. The one-page document was prompted by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others at a public event.
     
    The pledge, also available on line for mayors to sign, asks for a commitment to the following principles:
    • Respect the right of all Americans to hold different opinions;
    • Avoid rhetoric intended to humiliate, de-legitimatize, or question the patriotism of those whose opinions are different from ours;
    • Strive to understand differing perspectives;
    • Choose words carefully;
    • Speak truthfully without accusation, and avoid distortion;
    • Speak out against violence, prejudice, and incivility in all their forms, whenever and wherever they occur.”
    The efforts to remind us of the importance of civility in our society are especially important as partisan differences often overtake dialog. While many of the admonitions George Washington wrote seem antiquated, here is another we would call a best practice: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

     

  •  Transparency In Government Is Priceless

    Friday, Feb. 18, 2011

     

    How much are we willing to pay for open and transparent government?
     
    In California, the governor is suggesting cuts to the state budget that would end the funding given to local government for posting public notice of meetings. This advance notification is part of the state’s open meeting requirements, designed to allow community input on items to be voted on by governing bodies. Public officials who violate the provisions, found in the Ralph M. Brown Act, face misdemeanor charges and may go before the local ethics commission.
     
    The cuts are estimated to save $63 million the state owes for claims dating back to 2004. There are additional mandates that are also on the chopping block. According to a finance spokesman for the state “this wasn’t an effort to single out the Brown Act in any way, shape or form. We proposed suspension of all state mandates that weren’t involved with either public safety or property tax.”
     
    In a time when every item in every budget is critical, we should not be cutting back on measures to ensure citizen input and transparent decision making.


     

  •  Website Offers Help In Finding The Truth

    Friday, Feb. 18, 2011

    Fact or fiction? In government, sometimes it’s hard to tell. But PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site, provides an “accuracy analysis” of statements made by politicians and pundits.
    You can check out the “Truth-O-Meter” to evaluate statements and claims in the news. In addition to covering national topics, the site gives ratings for news stories in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
    Using an icon similar to an applause meter, the categories of truthfulness range from true to  “pants on fire” which is lower than false. The site also evaluates changes or perceived changes in political opinion or position: no flip, half flip, full flop.
    Coverage of the 2008 election earned PolitiFact the Pulitzer, but its simplicity and candor have earned it many followers.

  •  Public Sector Retirees Cash In

    Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011

    Think pension checks are bankrupting cities? There is another factor draining the municipal coffers. Unused vacation and sick days are being “cashed out” by public employees, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In many jurisdictions in California, there is no “cap” on the number of days you can accrue, allowing individuals to “roll over” unused time and collect the accumulated hours as part of leaving public service.
     
    This has been a long-standing practice, but it came to light recently when state Controller John Chiang surveyed government salaries and benefits in the wake of the scandal in the city of Bell.
    The numbers are staggering. Retired San Jose police chief Rob Davis got a check for $327,454 for his unused vacation and sick days. In San Francisco, former police chief Heather Fong was paid $303,653 for unused vacation, sick, and comp time.
     
    These are all legal payments, part of contracts negotiated by city councils who were adding perks at a time when they could not offer pay increases. San Jose also offers some employees a vacation “sellback” program, allowing individuals to turn in up to 120 hours of vacation for cash compensation.
    Times have changed but the terms of those MOU documents do not reflect current realities. The private sector generally requires vacation days to be taken, adopting a “use it or lose it” policy. Sick days are usually capped; disability programs cover longer illnesses.
    In addition to considering layoffs, pay reductions, and increasing employee contribution for benefits, cities should not overlook this opportunity to save money.
     

  •  Note To Legislators: Quality Trumps Quantity When Introducing Bills

    Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011

     

    Friday marks the deadline for introduction of bills in the California legislature. There is likely to be a stampede, as both freshman and veteran lawmakers try to make their mark by introducing bills. A review of laws passed in 2010 shows an interesting variety of subjects elected officials brought to the floor – the 65-page list is available online.
     
    Among the expected, you’ll find education, veteran’s affairs, economic development, affordable housing, energy, and foster care. Predictably, there are numerous bills related to horse racing and gaming.
     
    Among the unexpected are bills dealing with electronic cigarettes, licensing of pedicabs, commercial blood banks for animals, and self-service storage facilities.The League of California Cities anticipates more than 2,000 bills will be up for discussion in this legislative session.
     
    While some believe the more bills you introduce the better you are as a legislator, I would argue that it is quality, not quantity that better serves the public.
     
     
     

     

  •  Budget Woes Don't Excuse Unethical Behavior

    Friday, Feb. 11, 2011

    When the mayor of Calgary took a flight to Toronto recently, a firm doing business with the city paid the $721.50 airfare.  He says he took the free flight to save the city money.  And despite public criticism over the Toronto trip, he’s flying to Vancouver next week, using a $659.14 ticket paid for by a leadership academy.

    Expect to see more of these kinds of justifications for accepting gifts of travel. A municipal budgets are reduced to addressing basic services, travel has been all but eliminated in some cities. But this justification doesn’t pass the ethics test, regardless of Calgary’s financial constraints.

    Allowing a contractor or vendor to pay for gifts of travel can compromise the independent and objective relationship needed for fair and good government. Gifts such as this can be seen as a quid pro quo or a reward for a contract. Accepting such freebies can also lead to the “slippery slope” where legitimate business trips merge with personal travel.

    Fortunately the city is considering hiring ethics experts to provide guidelines for council travel, gifts, and campaign donations. Replacing the informal, unwritten policies is overdue.

     

     

     

  •  Responsibility, Accountability Needed For Special Districts

    Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011

     

    “Under the radar” is a term I often use for those public agencies that are not well known to the public or the press.
     
    You may have heard about a local water board, or a board making decisions about transit, utilities, and sanitation. But some communities have "special district" boards or commissions that are responsible for mosquito abatement, cemeteries, levee maintenance, transit, fire, harbor, geologic hazard abatement, and the like.  
     
    Some members are appointed, others are elected, but all are subject to strict reporting requirements enforced  by the California Fair Political Practices Commission. The commission investigating complaints publishes a regular summary of actions, and this month one item caught my eye.
     
    Arturo Chacon, who won a seat on the Central Basin Municipal Water District Board of Directors was just fined $30,000 for a host of violations. His election committee not only failed to file at least five separate required statements on time, it also violated several key provisions of the ethics laws, including accepting cash contributions of $100 or more and making cash expenditures of $100 or more.
     
    The decisions made by special district board members and their administrative directors have significant impact on the day-to-day running of some of our most basic services. These individuals approve budgets, allocate funds, and set policies that our children will inherit. They should not escape the spotlight.

     

  •  California City Seeks Lifeline By Hiring Top Government Ethics Attorneys

    Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011

     

    In an attempt to keep its status as a city, the southern California municipality of Vernon has brought in top lawyers to oversee an ethics investigation.
     
    Former state attorney general John Van de Kamp will work along with Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies who once served as general counsel to the California Fair Political Practices Commission. The review of Vernon’s government is to include a specific look at ethics, conflict of interest, and open government issues.
     
    In the wake of several criminal investigations and indictments, an assembly bill has been introduced to disincorporate the city. Although the city has only 100 residents, it is home to some 1,800 businesses, and city administrator Mark Whitworth says “If you close the doors on the opportunities here, business are going to move out of the state or shut down altogether. We need to resolve this, and we need to move forward. If there are real issues, let’s address them.”
     
    While the probe in underway, Vernon continues to work with lawyers and lobbyists to defeat the legislation and a possible attempt by Los Angeles to have the industrial center made a part of Los Angeles County.

     

 
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